Tuesday, February 7, 2006

A History of Heavy Metal Part Two: Heading Out to the Highway

Nineteen seventy saw the release of Black Sabbath's self titled debut album. Although no one may have realised it at the time, it was a turning point for rock music. After all, Black Sabbath was the first, full fledged heavy metal album. It made it all the way to the top ten album chart in the United Kingdom. In the United States it only managed to reach the top 40, but it remained there over a year. Heavy metal, it seemed was here to stay.

Having originated in Britain, the early years of heavy metal was largely dominated by British bands. Deep Purple had made their debut before Black Sabbath had even formed, all the way back in 1967. Their debut album was released in October 1968 and already boasted some material that was, if not heavy metal, at least proto-metal. As the years passed, however, Deep Purple's sound grew heavier. By the time of their album Fireball, released in 1971, they were pretty much a heavy metal band. With the release of Machine Head in 1972, there could be little doubt of that fact.

While Deep Purple would evolve into a heavy metal band, Uriah Heep was arguably a heavy metal band from the beginning. Their debut album, Very 'Eavy...Very 'Umble, featured distorted guitar combined with a loud organ. On later albums Uriah Heep would shift back and forth from heavy metal to progressive rock, often on the same album. Although largely unknown today, it was Uriah Heep who, along with Deep Purple, first introduced classical influneces to heavy metal.

If Uriah Heep is hardly remembered, then Black Widow may well be largely forgotten. The band was formed in 1967 in Leicester as Pesky Gee. By 1970 the band had changed their name to "Black Widow." If Fundamentalists have always objected to the music of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, then the music of Black Widow could well have given them heart attacks. Their debut album, Sacrifice, was filled with references to devil worship, black magic, and other elements of the occult. Their stage show at the time even featured the mock sacrifice of a maiden. Despite all of this (or perhaps because of it), Sacrifice crept into the British top 40 albums. Their second, self titled album moved away from demonic subject matter, as did their third album as well. Sadly for Black Widow, their success would decline as well. Although more a progressive rock band along the lines of Jethro Tull than a true heavy metal band, it seems likely Black Widow had some influence on the genre.

A bit better known than Black Widow was the band UFO. Formed in 1969, their debut album was released in 1971. In some respects UFO was ahead of their time. Their sound could be described as Led Zeppelin meets Iron Maiden. It is perhaps for this reason that they met with little success--they were too far ahead of their time. Regardless, they would have a lasting impact, being cited as an influence by both Megadeth and Metallica.

Most of the early British heavy metal bands came from England, but not all of them. Nazareth was formed in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1968. By 1970 they would move to London and by 1971 they would release their self titled debut. Meeting with little success with their early albums, Nazareth would finally see success with their third album, Razamanaz. With the 1975 release of Hair of the Dog, with their remake of "Love Hurts," they would see success on both sides of the Atlantic.

Of course, not every early heavy metal band was British. In fact, among the most successful bands of the era was one that proudly proclaimed themselves to be "an American band." Grand Funk Railroad was formed in 1969 by former members of Terry Knight & the Pack and ? & the Mysterians. By 1970 they would become the top selling band in America. Despite this, Grand Funk Railroad never received much respect. Critics despised them and bewailed the fact that they were successful. Despite this, Grand Funk Railroad would have a lasting impact on artists as diverse as Prince and Bon Jovi. That having been said, there are very few today, if any, who would consider their work to be heavy metal (I am one of those people).

If it is questionable whether Grand Funk Railroad was ever really heavy metal, there can be no doubt that Blue Oyster Cult is and always has been. In fact, Sandy Pearlman, their original manager claims to have been the first person to have ever used the term "heavy metal" of music. The band formed in the late Sixties in New York as Soft White Underbelly and eventually changed their name to Blue Oyster Cult in 1970 (the name comes from an in joke involving blue point oysters). Their self titled debut album was released in January 1972. Even on that first album it was clear that they were something different. Some of the songs, such as "Workshop of the Telescopes" and "Transmaniacon MC" contained openly fantastic lyrics. Blue Oyster Cult would continue to mine fantasy and science fiction for subject matter, even working with fantasy writer Michael Moorcock on a few tunes. Indeed, their two biggest hits both deal with fantastic subject matter--"(Don't Fear) The Reaper" and "Godzilla." Forget Rush. Forget the Alan Parson Project. Blue Oyster Cult is the band for geeks.

Pre-dating Blue Oyster Cult and having a greater impact on heavy metal was Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper was the name of both the band and of its lead singer (born Vincent Furnier). Formed in the late Sixties, Alice released two albums on Frank Zappa's label to little success. Their third album (and their first on a major label), Love It to Death, not only cemented the band's sound, but its success as well. Ultimately, their stage show would gain them as much attention as their music. Their image (and the image Alice has retained in his solo career) was largely drawn from old horror movies, Gothic literature, and even vaudeville. In any one of Alice Cooper's stage shows from the Seventies, one might see guillotines, electric chairs, boa constrictors, and a lot of fake blood. Between songs that skirted the line between traditional rock and heavy metal, Alice Cooper would become one of the biggest acts of the early Seventies. They would also have a lasting impact on heavy metal, influencing bands from KISS to W.A.S.P. Indeed, Cooper himself has been referred to as "the Father of Metal" and "the Founder of Shock Rock."

By the mid-Seventies many of the early bands had either broken up or faded away. This did not mean the end of heavy metal, as new bands simply arose to take their place. The band Aerosmith was formed in Boston in 1970 by Steve Tyler, Joe Perry, and Tom Hamilton. By 1973 they would release their self titled debut album, featuring the hit single "Dream On." They would go onto become one of the most successful bands of the Seventies and one of the longest running heavy metal groups. Then as now, Aerosmith's sound tended to be more blues based than other heavy metal bands, Indeed, on some songs their music almost sounds like heavy metalised boogie woogie. Aerosmith would have a lasting influence on bands from Cinderella to Guns 'n' Roses.

Of course, if Aerosmith was influential, then KISS was even more so. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley formed Rainbow (not to be confused with Ritchie Blackmore's later band of the same name) in 1970. The band would eventually become Wicked Lester and would even win a contract with Epic, although no albums were ever released. At long last they renamed themselves KISS. In the beginning they modelled themselves after the New York Dolls, but found the feminine, glam makeup that the Dolls wore not much to their liking. The four members of KISS then designed their own makeup and created their own personas--Paul Stanley became the Star Child, Gene Simmons became the Demon, Ace Frehley became the Spaceman, and Peter Criss became the Cat. For their stage show they took their cue from Alice Cooper, complete with fire breathing, explosions, and, of course, fake blood. As to their music, like Alice Cooper, KISS straddled the line between traditional rock and heavy metal. Their songs were usually only a little over three minutes and filled with hooks. But they were also filled with distorted guitars and heavy drums. The influence of KISS is impossible to calculate. In fact, as sad as it might seem, KISS might well have been the group most responsible for creating the hair bands of the Eighties.

While most of the major heavy metal bands of the mid-Seventies came from America, there is one that hailed from Australia. AC/DC was formed in 1973 in Sydney by Angus and Malcolm Young. They soon became one of the most successful bands in Australia. This led to a record deal with Atlantic Records and success in the UK and America. In the United States the band would have a hit with their album Highway to Hell. They have continued to be one of the top bands in the world, even surviving the death of original lead singer Bon Scott. They have become one of the longest running rock acts around.

While the United States produced most of the major heavy metal bands of the late to mid Seventies, this did not mean that Britain was down for the count. Partly as a reaction to punk rock and partly to fill the void left by the older heavy meal bands, there emerged a New Wave of British Metal. On the vanguard of this wave was the band Judas Priest. The band had actually been formed all the way back in 1969 in Birmingham, England (given this is also Black Sabbath's hometown, Birmingham should perhaps be considered he capitol of heavy metaldom...) by K. K. Downing and Ian Hill. Their first album, Rocka Rolla, was released in 1974. It was their second album, Sad Wings of Destiny, however, that brought them fame. The album is often counted as the first in the British New Wave of Heavy Metal. Others go even further, counting it alongside the band's third and fourth albums, Sin After Sin (1977) and Stained Class (1978), as the first albums to define "pure" heavy metal. For the time Priest's sound was unique, defined by twin lead guitars and dual rhythm guitars. Others had used dual lead guitars before Judas Priest, but none were as consistent in their use. Throughout the Eighties, Judas Priest was one of the most successful heavy metal bands and among hardcore headbangers often counted as the heavy metal band. Only when original lead singer Rob Halford left the band did their popularity decline.

Judas Priest sparked the New Wave of British Metal. And for the first few years of the Eighties heavy metal was once more dominated by the British. And given just how many heavy metal bands were around in the Eighties, it could be argued that they sparked something else as well....

To be continued....

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